The Best Option for the Poor

            What is the best option for the poor when it comes to the help we provide? What is the best, first step to help lift people out of poverty? Is it meeting their physical needs, helping them find jobs, looking for opportunities for them?  The ways in which we can help poor people are limited only by our imagination.  But I think we often miss a key component that, if not addressed, dooms most poor people to failure in their attempts to improve their lives.

             The neglected key component is how people think.  Unless we help them change their attitudes and worldviews,  most will be doomed to their current station in life.  After meeting their basic needs, the best option for the poor in our work with them is to help them see that there is a better way to approach problems.

             Below are just a two of the mental obstacles that keep poor people poor:

 Entitlement Mentality: The attitude that someone else should provide for them and fix their problems.  This, in my opinion, is the strongest link in the chain that enslaves people in a life of poverty.  We must help them realize that, ultimately, they have to take initiative and develop persistence in overcoming their obstacles.

 Hopelessness:  In homeless people, this is a common problem.  Some of my homeless friends have been knocked down so many times, they stop trying, or when they suffer a setback, they medicate themselves with drugs or alcohol or indulge in other destructive behaviors.  Encouragement should be a key element of every ministry with the poor.  Faith in Christ is also a strong deterrent to hopelessness among the homeless.

             So the best option for the poor is to become their friend and help them see that they can make it if they change their thinking.  With the right attitude and lots of persistence they CAN win their personal fight against poverty.

God’s grace to you,

Steve Jennings

Executive Director, Teens Opposing Poverty

Be a Bright Spot

            Robert Massey stood in front of nearly 500 teens and adults from Virginia Methodist Churches.  He stopped in the middle of detailing homeless life and blurted out, “Homelessness sucks!”  The crowd erupted into applause.  He had their attention.

             Robert is still homeless and has been for 17 years.  He made a lot of mistakes and experienced a lot of emotional pain that, through the grace of a renewed relationship with Jesus Christ, is fading.  He shares his experience with churches and other groups through Teens Opposing Poverty’s Homelessness in the First Person program.

             After sharing the mind-numbing monotony and dehumanizing experiences of homeless life, Robert looked out over the crowd of young faces and told them they could be a bright spot for someone who is struggling in life.  He told them how much it meant for somebody to smile at him, listen to him, talk with him and just treat him like a human being.

             Be a bright spot.  It doesn’t have to be a big thing.  It can be as simple as looking somebody in the eye and saying hello, or buying a homeless person something to eat besides peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.  It can be listening to a lonely elderly person share how things used to be or tossing a football around with homeless people who have taken up residence in a park.  It can be getting to know someone who is very different from you well enough to call them your friend.

             These seemingly small things are huge to someone who struggles to hold onto the shreds of human dignity that are constantly being stripped away by a cold system.  Everything that is designed to help people defeat the monsters that hold them in poverty works better when love is added to it.

             Be a bright spot for somebody today.  Do small things with large love and make a big difference.

God’s grace to you,

Steve Jennings, Executive Director

Lessons from the Street

Some “how-to’s” of homeless ministry.

Based on 20+ years of working with homeless people, here are some things I have learned. Your mileage may vary.

1. Freely give at first. Don’t worry about whether the person you are helping is “using the system”. Err on the side of grace, and use your giving to establish a relationship with that person.

2. Pray for discernment as you continue to work with a person. If it appears that they don’t want to take action to improve their lives, you must first determine two things:

a) Do they have a clue as to what they need to do for their part?
b) Do they have the capacity to do what is necessary?

In other words, do they have physical, mental or emotional challenges that make it difficult or humanly impossible to make the changes in their own lives?

3. If a person is able but unwilling to take action, don’t enable them to continue in their current lifestyle. They need to feel pain from their situation in order to move out of it. On the other hand, don’t abandon them. Be there. Be a friend. Be an encourager. Share the love of Christ with them. Help them to bring Jesus into their hearts so that the power of the Holy Spirit can strengthen them to overcome the forces that hold them down.

People trapped in poverty face a ton of obstacles to success: emotional, physical, mental, situational and spiritual. We MUST minister to the whole person. We MUST get involved in their lives and make ourselves vulnerable to the disappointment that often comes when they fall. When we do that, God can use us in incredible, life-changing ways.

Steve Jennings
Executive Director, Teens Opposing Poverty

Jesus Really Is Enough

The day started with a small miracle. I counted nine cars, trucks and vans in our little convoy to Franklin Square in Washington, DC. It was the destination for our trip to serve homeless people on an amazingly warm Saturday after Christmas.

“Please, Lord,” I prayed, “provide enough parking spaces for all of us.” Over the years, I had learned to pray for parking. As we approached the park, I was shocked and delighted to find enough spaces for all nine vehicles to park together. In over 20 years of ministry, that was a first for so many cars. Little miracles always lead to good ministry trips.

I had intended to just lead the group down, make sure they got set up and head home early, but God had other plans. As I was watching the teens and adults putting out food and clothes, I got into a conversation with Mac. He was a portly man, average height, with a kind expression on his face.

The conversation started with “How was your Christmas?” Mac at first said his wasn’t good. He didn’t have the money to get his kids anything, and that really bummed him out. But after a brief pause to search for the right words, he began telling me about how he was blessed. He started a new job the week before Christmas, and had been drug-free for two years.

Mac’s life had been vandalized by one mistake after another until he invited Jesus into his heart. Through that relationship and the encouragement of other believers, he was able to break the chains of addiction that had dragged him down to his homeless existence. He shared how it hadn’t been an easy road for him even after coming to Christ, but he had a new strength to deal with the set backs. Most importantly he had a hope that endured through his toughest struggles.

Less than a minute after I said good-bye and embraced my new found brother in Christ, I met Chuck and heard a very similar testimony. Chuck didn’t have a regular job yet, but the Lord had delivered him from his addiction. He had been drug free for a year and a half, and spent nearly a half hour sharing with me all the blessings and miracles the Lord had worked in his life.

Sometimes we start thinking that everything relies on us. When our plans don’t work out, we feel like failures. When we meet struggles and challenges, our first response is to fix it ourselves. I was reminded that day how wrong that approach can be. Instead I learned the path to victory from two homeless men:

1. Give yourself completely to Jesus. Make Him the Lord of every aspect of your life.
2. Cast your cares, obstacles & worries on Him. Things may still be tough, but you won’t be alone.
3. When God opens a door, walk through it.

Jesus really is enough.

Step Off the Curb Please

I stood in the middle of Franklin Square in Washington, DC and watched three church groups in succession pull their vans up to the curb, dish out some food, say “God bless you” to the people they were serving, get back in their vans and leave for the next park.  I also watched the same guys we had given hot-stuffed baked potatoes to less than 20 minutes earlier go to each of those vans and get another loaded plate.

 

Now before you get your dander up over this, you need to understand an important point.  During the weekdays, most homeless people get by on one meal a day (68% according to a 2007 survey we conducted).  Some days they even have to miss that one meal. Weekends are the only time they get to eat until they actually feel full.

 

The problem with the “feed and leave” approach is that we are so intent on reaching the maximum number of people, we fail miserably in inspiring real change.  How many of those folks who came by knew that Marcell was 52 years old, had been out of work for three months, and for the first time in his life, was homeless?  How many of them knew that Kevin was having a hard time finding a job because of his criminal record?

 

I have to tell you, it’s a wonderful feeling to find a pair of shoes to fit a homeless man who had to cut the toes out of the shoes he was wearing because they were too small or to hand a plate of food to someone who hasn’t eaten in a day or two.  But it’s even more rewarding to see Reggie, who had given up on life after a series of major catastrophes, work up the moxie to try again because a group of teenagers believed in him, encouraged him and prayed with him.  By the way, he was off the street in less than three months.

 

Most poor people are not going to escape their plight through programs alone.  They need somebody in their corner.  Each of us, can impact the life of a poor person simply by being a friend.

 

To my dear sisters and brothers in Christ with the “van by the curb” ministry, please know that I applaud and rejoice in your work.  Don’t stop.  I ask of you only one thing.  Try making time in your busy feeding schedule to connect with the people you serve.  You’ll never regret it.

 

Steve Jennings

Executive Director, Teens Opposing Poverty

Fly By Evangelism

I watched the small group of young adults huddle in the corner of McPherson Square, just two blocks from the White House.  They each had a small paper bag filled with something.  After some excited discussion, they prayed and started walking toward groups of homeless people scattered throughout the park.  They reached into their bags, handed everyone something and said a couple of words.  Within 5 minutes they had completed their task and left the park.

 

One by one, most of the homeless men in the park either dropped their new treasure on the ground or tossed it into a trash can.  The “treasure” was a gospel tract.  It was the “This Was Your Life” tract.  I looked around the park to see if anybody was reading the tract they were given.  Not a single person was reading it.

 

At that moment, I was embarrassed for Jesus.  Have we learned nothing from His example?  Look at each encounters He had with people; the woman at the well, the 10 lepers, the rich, young ruler, the blind beggar, the lame man by the pool.  He invested His time in each of these people and met them at their point of need.  By meeting them at their point of need most of them believed in Him.  OK, so the rich young ruler walked away.  It just goes to show you that some peoples’ hearts are hardened to the point where they can’t change.  Accept it and move on.

 

Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately) we don’t have the ability to peer into the peoples’ souls.  So it may take us a little longer than our Lord to figure out a person’s real needs.  But when we meet those needs, we earn the right to share the Gospel in power.

 

During Advent, we read with nostalgia the words from John’s Gospel: “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”  The Word of God must still become flesh to poor and hurting people before they can turn their troubles, fears, hearts and lives to the One who, better than any of us, can turn their lives around.  God’s Word becomes flesh through us.  Do you want to win the hearts of poor people for Christ?  You show them Christ first.  Then you can fill in the blanks with words.

 

God’s grace to you,

 

Steve Jennings

Win the Battle – Lose the War

Pro-family forces have been giving themselves high-fives since the 2008 elections when Proposition 8 in California and other pro-family referenda passed.  Tens of millions of dollars were pumped into these campaigns.  The victories were exhilarating for pro-family advocates who have fought long and hard to bring about change in public policy.

 

What difference will it make?  Will the passage of Proposition 8 or the other pro-family initiatives cause even one homosexual to abandon that lifestyle?  I doubt it.

 

Now don’t get me wrong.  Advocacy for change in public policy has its place in the “culture wars.”   I’m not suggesting we should just roll over and let the “other side” have their way in the legislatures and courts, whatever the issue may be.  As Americans we have a right and a responsibility to work within our political and judicial systems for what we believe in.  But I am suggesting that this type of advocacy shouldn’t be our first priority if we truly want to change the culture.  That is not how the Christian faith works.

 

The growing popularity of pushing for change in the political/judicial arena has supplanted, for many Christians, the real work of advancing the cause of Christ.  We may feel that we are fulfilling our calling in Christ by participating in marches, contacting our legislative representatives or giving our time, talent and treasure to advocacy organizations.  It’s a cleaner, more glamorous way return our nation to its Christian roots.  The problem is that if we rely on changing our country this way, we will certainly fail.

 

The real work of the Gospel isn’t so clean or glamorous.  It’s often dirty, unrewarding and invisible to most people in this country.  We have to get involved in the lives of others and make ourselves vulnerable to the disappointments and emotional risks of real relationships with people who aren’t like us.  But more than advocacy, more than preaching and Christian media, it is through relationships that we change our world.  It may not seem like much to our number-obsessed American minds, but God has made clear that each human life, each human heart, is precious to Him. 

 

I use Proposition 8 merely as an example.  The same principle applies to all the other issues in which Christians stake out a moral position, whether it be racial injustice, poverty, international oppression, human rights or abortion.  The only way to truly bring about change in the lives of most people is to show them, one-on-one, the better love that comes through a real realtionship with Jesus Christ and His followers.  You can’t do that through the courts or referenda.  It can only happen one heart at a time.  When you change each heart, you come just a little closer to changing the culture.

 

God’s grace to you,

Steve Jennings